The Elegance (and Pain) of a White Mountain Presidential Traverse

Gus, Phil and Steve atop Mount Washington Aug. 22.
Gus, Phil and Steve atop Mount Washington Aug. 22.

Most hikers traipsing among New Hampshire’s White Mountains consider peaks in the Presidential Range – Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower – a worthy day hike, and many break up ascents of the more formidable summits into two or more days.

Now imagine stringing them all together in one epic, 22-mile ramble, with 8,800 feet of elevation gain (and loss), and you have one of the most elegant and bone-jarring day rambles in all of New England, if not North America: The Presidential Traverse.

“It was a slog. Rock after rock after rock,” Phil Plouffe of Mystic groaned the other day, after he and a group of fellow hard-core hikers completed the journey in 12 hours (including an hour of breaks for snacks, coffee and photos).

I had been invited to join the fun but unfortunately (maybe I should say luckily) was kayaking in Minnesota, so had to experience it vicariously. Actually, I’ve been to each of the summits in the traverse many times – but never all on the same day.

“The idea is to pack light and travel fast, resting minimally,” said expedition organizer Steve Kurczy of Woodstock, with whom, like Phil, I’ve shared several adventures on land and sea. Rounding out the group were Steve’s uncle, also named Steve; his 12-year-old nephew, Aiden; and a buddy from Brazil, Gus. Steve, formerly a reporter for The Times weekly newspapers published by The Day, now is a freelance reporter and editor based much of the year in Brazil, and also chronicles his hair-raising adventures on the website www.stephenkurczy.com.

Here are highlights of his account:

“Barely an hour into the hike and less than halfway up Valley Way trail to the first summit (Madison), Aidan fell into a river. He slipped and landed feet first about knee-high in a freezing stream, soaking his shoes and socks. I think we all at that moment ruled out Aidan’s chances for finishing the full traverse. Except Aidan. He kept trekking up the steepest part of the climb on Watson Path, so steep that I had to grab at trailside trees and roots to hoist myself up the rocks and keep balance from falling backward.”

Steve poked good-natured fun at Phil, a man of few words on the trail and a strong disinclination for resting.

“Phil doesn’t like photos, taking them or appearing in them. He scowls at the camera and growls, ‘Let’s go, I’m getting cold!’ Apparently U.S. Postal Service letter carriers — especially the ones that have summited Aconcagua, tallest peak in the Americas, and made it to Camp IV on Mt Everest, just 3,000 feet shy of the world’s highest point — don’t have time for photos.”

After complaining about the nonstop rocks, Phil told me he did enjoy the hike – especially the free pancakes at Madison Hut, the exceptional ridge views, and the 6,289-ft. summit of Washington on a rare 50-degree day with only 10 mph winds (wind gusts once clocked 231 mph atop the peak, which can be below freezing in summer and well below zero in winter).

But would he do it again?

Phil paused before replying, “Once is enough.”

The group began hiking south at 5:30 a.m. from the Appalachia trailhead off Route 2 in Randolph and crested the first summit, 5,367-ft. Madison, shortly after 8.

An hour and a half later the hikers scrambled over Adams (5,774 ft.) and at 10:30 reached the top of Jefferson (5,712 ft.), where they encountered a young woman named Taylor Radigan, who was about to finish a solo hike of all 48 4,000-footers in the White Mountains in two weeks. (Note, it took my son, Tom, and me a few years of intermittent excursions to finish the 4,000s, including 14 others in Maine and five in Vermont). Ms. Radigan, apparently, went at a brisker pace – but paid a price.

“Her legs were cut and bruised. And she seemed a bit undernourished by the way she snatched Uncle Steve’s beef jerky and readily accepted my breakfast leftovers of Chex mix, raisins, and LÄRABAR. She could have beat me up and stolen my whole lunch if she wanted,” Steve said.

The group diverged after Jefferson, with Steve, Phil and Gus tacking on an extra mile to include Clay, even though it is not considered part of the traverse. After they rejoined to tag Washington, Steve suggested that his uncle and nephew consider a shortcut.

“I said they could get back home by walking around Monroe and skipping Mt. Pierce altogether, saving themselves 1-2 miles of steep hiking. ‘That’s reassuring,’ said Uncle Steve. ‘But will we still be able to say we did the Presidential Traverse?’ ‘No,” I said, ‘not honestly.’ He replied, ‘Well why start being honest now?’’

Steve continued his narrative:

“As we descended and then ascended Franklin (not a president, and also not an official mountain) I looked back expecting to see Steve and Aidan somewhere around the base of Mt. Monroe. Instead, they appeared at the top – they were going for the full traverse, no matter how long it took them. I credit Taylor Radigan for inspiring us all that day.”

Eisenhower (4,780 ft.) by 2:30 p.m.; Pierce 4,311 ft.) by 3:30; Jackson (4,052 ft.) by 4:30.

“Here it’s strange to look back at the way you came, because it looks so far away. Mt. Washington looms big over the Dry River Wilderness and obscuring any sight of the early peaks of the day (Madison, Adams, Jefferson),” Steve said.

Finally, they limped into the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center at 5:30 p.m., just as clouds were lowering in the valley.

“We lucked out with the weather,” Phil said.

Steve was thrilled they had completed the hike three hours less than the average time – but also humbled by mad dashers obsessed with speed. The fastest recorded traverse is four hours and 34 minutes.

Steve has run a 26.2-mile marathon in a blazing fast 2 hours and 30 minutes, but can’t comprehend maintaining any kind of speed over rocky trails that rise and fall thousands of feet.

“I am blown away that people have completed the 22-mile traverse in 5.5 hours and the 20-mile traverse (which ends at Pierce and leaves out Jackson) in a mere 4.5 hours. I can run forever on a road, but lunging from rock to rock on those steep paths is insanity,” he said.

Of course, couch potatoes might apply the same term to anyone slogging up and down boulder-strewn trails, virtually nonstop, for half a day. One man’s adventure is another’s madness.

Either way, it was an impressive feat they all should take pride in accomplishing.

But if I know Steve, in the back of his mind he’s thinking, “I bet with a little training I can get my time down to under five hours.”

 

 

 

 

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